The approaching winter stirs memories of the prior one’s harshness, and has occasioned a breakthrough in vintage/surplus clothing rehabilitation.
I was trying to get several woolen items into wearable condition without spending hundreds of dollars. In an earlier post I investigated the merits of hydrocarbon cleaning for delicate old items, but I don’t have $50 USD every time headgear is too stinky to touch, let alone wear. And if headgear is $50 to clean, imagine what a coat would cost! I read a bit about various home cleaning solvents, and discovered bleach and ammonia are most effective at destroying mildew.
Years ago, I had used a 1:4 solution of ammonia and water in a clothes steamer to rescue a suit jacket too dirty to dryclean. A drycleaner would not have accepted it before my ammonia-steam-and-pat-dry process, so I thought of ammonia again because it doesn’t harm wool or, it seems, leather. But steam makes the wool smelly and slows the cleaning process.
I have a canvas & wool hat (above) from the Civilian Conservation Corps, a much-loved New Deal program that conserved and developed natural resources nationwide until 1942. Though unused, it smells like it’s been in damp subterranean storage since the Philadelphia quartermaster’s tag says: 1940. I sprayed it with undiluted ammonia, sandwiched it between two white terry-cloth towels, and pressed it piecemeal with an iron on 100% heat, no steam. I turned it inside out and did the inside as well. The towels absorbed the dirt, mildew and most of the fumes—ventilate as much as possible—and the hat emerged smelling entirely like ammonia and nothing else. After it had aired on a stick for a few hours, I could find no trace of funk or solvent on it.
In a short time I had similarly restored a 1942 jacket that would otherwise be unwearable. Both items not only smelled mildew-free, but clean, and of course did not shrink or deform. Both had become softer as well, probably having been stiff with dirt and/or tacky with mildew. This process works as well as drycleaning, evaluating strictly on odor and hand—but how else can you tell how clean your items are?